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September 18, 2018

 
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Amplify: In an era of disconnect, I’m reminded of why I need friendship to survive
Amplify: In an era of disconnect, I’m reminded of why I need friendship to survive

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This weekend I’ll be leaving for a vacation with two of my oldest friends, a trip that has taken longer to plan than the invasion of a small country. We’ve been trying to get away for a couple of years, but things always got in the way: jobs, families, life.

It will be worth it, I know. We’re like the Rolling Stones on the road – circa 2018, mind you, not 1972. Fewer groupies, more support stockings. We’re a well-oiled machine, as we should be. We’ve been friends for 30 years; we were roommates after university in an apartment that deserved to be condemned.

As the Johnny Cash song says, we’ve been everywhere. In northern California, we ate our weight in artichokes at an annual artichoke festival; in Sitges, Spain, we danced all night in a raucous bar and then forgot the way home. In Dublin, we stumbled on a huge group of people dressed as Waldo from the Where’s Waldo books. They were attempting a Guinness World Records entry for the largest gathering of Waldos, and so of course we bought glasses and striped sweaters and joined in. That’s my life advice: Always have friends who will wear costumes with you in public.

I’m Elizabeth Renzetti, a columnist and feature writer at The Globe and Mail. And this weekend my friends and I will be headed for New Orleans, just like the ladies in Girls Trip, the hilarious comedy about the relationship between four friends on a bonding vacation. I’m pretty sure ours will not be quite so wild or raunchy; a daily hunt for reading glasses will probably provide the most drama. But, like the women in Girls Trip, we’ll have a week to think about where our friendship has brought us, and how lucky we are to have each other.

I’m fascinated by women’s friendships – the complexities, the nuances, the way the terrain changes over the years like desert sands. It seems we never tire of watching and reading stories of other women’s relationships, from Elena Ferrante’s bestselling Neapolitan novels to HBO’s Big Little Lies, based on Liane Moriarty’s smash-hit book. One of my favourite recent novels was The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, a dagger-sharp story by Canadian writer Kim Fu, about a friendship forged among a group of girls during a summer gone terribly wrong.

 
 
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Women who have close friends understand how important they are to our emotional and physical health. “My own friends were like a life raft I didn’t know I was looking for before I got on it,” as Kayleen Schaefer, author of Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship, wrote earlier this year in The Globe and Mail.

But we also understand how much nurturing these relationships require, as Shoshana Sperling wrote in this beautiful, moving piece about friendship and loss for Chatelaine. The complexity of women’s friendships is what makes them so satisfying: a tension that linguistics professor Deborah Tannen explored in her recent book You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships. If you’ve ever complained to your husband and been annoyed when he tried to fix things, and then were grateful when your girlfriend just listened, you’ll appreciate Tannen’s insights.

But as Joni Mitchell told us all those years ago, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. What happens when you’re living in a social vacuum, without companionship? Perhaps you’re elderly and your friends are gone, or they’ve moved away, or you never had the skills to develop those relationships in the first place.

We’re living in an era of profound disconnect, in which social isolation is verging on a public-health crisis. I still hear from people about a story I wrote in 2013 on the epidemic of loneliness, a problem which is even more acute for men.

As many as 1.4 million Canadian seniors report feeling lonely, and the problem is particularly damaging for a small group living in “acute isolation,” as Maclean’s reported in this devastating story.

What if the answer lies, partly, in intergenerational friendships? My daughter, Maud, had never met another person with her name until an enlightened teacher at her primary school took her class to visit a nearby seniors’ home – and there, voila, was another Maud she could talk to. Other schools in Canada have launched similar programs, like this one in Alberta.

My favourite experiment is this one from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., which pairs students who need housing with seniors who could use a bit of company. It’s already been the start of some beautiful friendships.

What else we’re reading:

The opioid crisis that has gripped Canada and the United States is devastating. It’s taken thousands of lives, destroyed families and communities, and we’re just beginning to understand the extent of the problem. But what about the people whose lives are saved by opioids? In this Walrus magazine piece called “The Other Side of Fentanyl,” Teva Harrison, who was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2013, writes about exactly that with tremendous power and nuance. ‘’I think about my life before fentanyl. The all-consuming pain I struggled to live with; the rapid erosion of my independence. … I was barely a person. I was pain incarnate.‘’ While acknowledging how deadly the drug can be for others, Harrison notes that fentanyl patches have allowed her to walk and sit and sleep, a return to regular existence: “They have given me my life back.”

Inspired by something in this newsletter? If so, we hope you’ll amplify it by passing it on. And if there’s something we should know, or feedback you’d like to share, send us an e-mail at amplify@globeandmail.com.

We're working on a fun project and want your help! Do you have words of encouragement for Canadian women? Is there something they should know to keep going and be inspired? Send them to amplify@globeandmail.com.

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